Saturday, March 8, 2008

On the Culture of Surveilance

(this post is an aside to an ongoing email exchange on a similar subject)

Given the current ubiquity of surveillance in our postmodern global society, the question thrust upon us would seem to be whether or not we are living in or on the threshold of George Orwell's 1984. Electronic monitoring for various intents and purposes has been propelled into deeper technology cycles by consumer demand as much as by government sponsorship, although we may never know the extent of the latter. The government may have bigger, badder and more expensive toys, but it is unclear if they have an actual edge or merely appear to have an edge and exploit this cognitive dissonance sandwich fashion on top of their monopoly on the use of force.

In any case, Orwellian psychology is facing stiff competition from our lemming like embrace of privacy effacing technology. Benthamite social pragmatism has also surfaced in a surreal fashion, with proponents ranging from the urban poor to the privileged elite. As the government spies on us with and without our consent in ever more pervasive and multifaceted ways, we are now spying on each other and grappling with the interpersonal, social and psychological issues of an ever more elusive definition of privacy and personal expression. It is no longer clearly 'us and them' but a more oblique Pogo-like 'they is us'.

It is increasingly difficult to live without technology or even in 'low-tech' environments. A friend suggested that real safeguards against techno-panoptic encroachment is none other than our own bureaucratic tendency. I think there is some merit in this point of view and it is one of the reasons I think Russia has more contra-Orwellian potential than other countries with more efficient bureaucracies. Also, given the tech savvy Russian population, the widespread availability of gadgets and the ubiquitous disregard for copyright, I think any 'Big Brother' advantage that the state might otherwise enjoy in the sphere of technology and surveillance in particular is more than matched by private individuals and neo-feudal entities like corporations, sub-cliques within private and public organizations and random geek clubs.

Indeed, in many ways the power gap is really narrowing between the state and individuals. It is difficult to say weather the increasingly Byzantine laws enacted around the globe in the name of security, privacy, anti-terrorism and 'safefy' are a play for greater control over various societies or a knee jerk reaction to the increasing power of individuals to obtain and distribute information for reasons that begin to mirror those that have previously been the prerogative of the state, including security, propaganda, the management of information and advantage in social, business and legal spheres. We often fail to see the desperate measures of the state as an effort to maintain sovereignty in a world where it is slipping away like the tide.

What is clear form this development is that while individuals face increasing pressure from state and commercial organizations that to influence their personal lives through IT infrastructure, individuals have at the same time more potential to influence their environment than ever before and face a range of decisions heretofore unimaginable in regard to the way they choose to participate in human society. The pressure of these choices is unavoidable and while the 'default' choice of choosing to ignore changes may result in the fulfillment of dystopian scenarios, the potential to throw rocks in the blender of any prepackaged political or social program sponsored by the state (or any organization for that matter) has becomes so great that new questions arise regarding the nature of freedom and its potential as well as the structure of a society in which the lines between coercion and cooperation become blurred by self interest.

Some things have not an are not likely to change. Human nature, being what it is, is likely to surprise in unexpected ways, both diabolical and heroic. In the given situation I think that it is important to remember that rational individuals, who have always been accountable to some degree for their own misery and happiness regardless of circumstances, are in no way relieved from the responsibility to make the right choices. One thing that dark Orwellian premonitions of human society propagate is the excuse that evil is unavoidable and that individuals compelled to live in surreal situations are less responsible for their actions because there is no choice without dire consequences. This may be true, but in the techno-dystopia where we are all potentially spies, terrorists, hackers and inside traders, unwitting or no, we no longer have 'Big Brother' to blame for our own capitulation to baser human instincts which were once barred from reality by the border between the imagination and reality but are now realizable with the click of a button. Morality and the daily choice between good and evil are no less a part life than before, but they are suddenly and unmistakably more public in their consequences.

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